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The True Value of Understanding Tonal Values in Your Art

If I was asked for that ONE THING could improve your art work, aside from developing good drawing skills, I would say get your ‘tonal values’ correct.
Read on to see what I mean…
Colour may move us at first instance but it is the range of darks and lights, the ‘tonal values’ that create the powerful design which is the backbone of each art work.
Values are the lightness or darkness of your hues, on a scale from Dark 0 or 1- Light 9
This is called the ‘Value scale’  Image01

Everything you see can be drawn as a range of shapes in corresponding, relative, tonal values.
This is one of the first lessons I teach in my weekly lessons as I know it will become the most valuable.

Still Unconvinced? Read on for examples of how to use it in your artwork….

You want to capture a sense of light and atmosphere?
Tonal values recreate the light in the picture, or rather the ‘contrast’ between the high and low tonal values: imagine a shaft of sunlight in a narrow back street the light sparkling against the dark and now imagine this scene with the shaft of light in the open street with no dark foil to emphasise it.

Angela’s photo from Granada
Angela’s photo from Granada
Angela’s initial graphite drawing to investigate the tonal values
Angela’s initial graphite drawing to investigate the tonal values

Plein Air Painting
The time of day, the mood and atmosphere are very important to set the mood in plein air painting. Artistic license is given to you to choose the ‘key’ of the painting in order to set the mood.
The ‘key’ of your painting is determined by your range of tonal values you choose to paint with. This painting is keyed to start on a mid-grey toned base, so that the lights really sparkle in contrast against it
NB I will talk about key in more detail in another bog.

‘Indian Summer- Milford on sea’ acrylic on canvas painted ‘en plein air’ by Angela Corben 25cm x 178cm
‘Indian Summer- Milford on sea’ acrylic on canvas painted ‘en plein air’ by Angela Corben 25cm x 178cm

You want Free and unfussy painting without too much detail; sculpt with a broad brush using tonal values
Tonal values sculpt the 3 dimensional images: we don’t need to outline every feature in a portrait; far better to highlight the brow of the nose which catches the light and fades the side of the nose into the surrounding darkness.

‘Ian’ Tonal Study acrylic on paper by Angela Corben 42cm x 54cm
‘Ian’ Tonal Study acrylic on paper by Angela Corben 42cm x 54cm
‘Ian in colour’ acrylics on paper by Angela Corben 42cm x 54cm
‘Ian in colour’ acrylics on paper by Angela Corben 42cm x 54cm

You struggle with getting the ‘right’ colours?
Colours are easier to choose when you have a good tonal value design. You need a warm red, now select the warm red which is the correct tonal value when held against the cool blue shape which juts up against it.

‘Haitian Woman’ acrylic on paper by Angela Corben 42cm x 30cm
‘Haitian Woman’ acrylic on paper by Angela Corben 42cm x 30cm

Tonal range of skin colours from Cadmium Yellow, Ochre and Burnt Sienna, through to Burnt Umber and Payne’s grey

The secret to Dynamic Compositions:
The design of your composition is perceived by the eye easily as a pattern of dark and light shapes (notan)
Place these with consideration and you have a winning painting before the brush touches the page.
Tonal values used correctly can be placed through the composition to lead you though the scene: creating a sense of perspective. The focal point of the composition can be created by placing a dark shape sharply contrasted against a light, or vice versa.

‘Plein air study   Abbotswell, New Forest’  Angela Corben Acrylic on paper 15cm x 20cm
‘Plein air study Abbotswell, New Forest’ Angela Corben Acrylic on paper 15cm x 20cm
 ‘Plein air study   Abbotswell, New Forest’  Angela Corben Acrylic on paper 15cm x 20cm
‘Plein air study Abbotswell, New Forest’ Angela Corben Acrylic on paper 15cm x 20cm

You don’t want to paint every detail?
Good use of tonal values is the use of poetry instead of writing a report.

 Tonal values are liberating: you can use almost any colours in your artwork if you have a solid tonal design.

‘Moody Blues’ still life    Oil on canvas by Angela Corben 90cm x 55cm
‘Moody Blues’ still life Oil on canvas by Angela Corben 90cm x 55cm

Thank you for reading. Please do share your comments or questions with me.

Angela.

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